James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Isaac A. Coles, 29 December 1809

From Isaac A. Coles

Dec. 29th. 1809

Dear Sir

After what has passed in the House of Representatives1 I feel myself compelled to declare to you, that I never can again be the Bearer of a Message to that Body. It is with feelings the most painful that I make this declaration, which I believe to be due as well to them as to myself—to avoid the Occasions for mortifications & insults which might be offered by some, whose feelings are the most unfriendly, & whose situations place them beyond the reach of resentment; & to avoid too those collisions in Society, under circumstances that would render them peculiarly disagreeable. Influenced by these considerations, & by these only, I cannot but flatter myself that the step which I am about to take, will be viewed by you with indulgence, & that you will Accept the assurances which I now offer you, that in retiring from the situation which I at present Occupy in your family, I carry with me no other feelings than those of the warmest & most respectful Attachment

I. A. Coles

P. S. This morning when I wrote the above, I was under an impression that there had been a decision of the House, on the subject to which it relates; but I have been informed since that the report of the Comtee., was only laid on the Table, to be taken up on a future day.2 Altho’ I would not wish, in appearance even, to avoid a decision of the House by seeming to fly from it; Yet I feel that it has now become my duty to communicate the above, and to add, that I will leave the City as soon as that decision shall be known.3

RC (ICHi).

1While delivering the president’s message to Congress on 29 Nov., Coles assaulted the Maryland representative Roger Nelson in the lobby of the Senate chamber. According to one witness to the affair, Samuel Sprigg, Nelson extended his hand in greeting to Coles and Coles responded by striking Nelson in the face. Another witness, James Turner, declared that Coles had seized Nelson by the collar and hit him with “some violence on the forehead or temple.” Coles then apparently said to Nelson: “I am willing for this matter to end here; you attacked my character, and I have taken this method to take satisfaction or to chastise you.” Nelson denied that he had ever said anything to injure the reputation of Coles. Accounts of the episode were obviously embellished as they circulated. British envoy Francis James Jackson, writing to his brother from Philadelphia on 10 Jan. 1810, reported that Coles had “horsewhipped” a member of Congress (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States ... (42 vols.; Washington, 1834-56). description ends , 11th Cong., 2d sess., 685; ASP description begins American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States ... (38 vols.; Washington, 1832-61). description ends , Miscellaneous, 2:18–19; Jackson, The Bath Archives description begins Lady Jackson, ed., The Bath Archives: A Further Selection from the Diaries and Letters of Sir George Jackson from 1809 to 1816 (2 vols.; London, 1873). description ends , 1:79).

2Two days after the assault Coles sent a letter of apology to the Speaker of the House, but the House appointed a committee to investigate for breach of privilege on 8 Dec. The committee reported on 29 Dec. that the circumstances of the affair could not “be admitted in justification of the act done by Mr. Coles” and that the assault was indeed a breach of privilege. The committee recommended, however, that no further action be taken (Annals of Congress description begins Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States ... (42 vols.; Washington, 1834-56). description ends , 11th Cong., 2d sess., 705, 987–88).

3When Coles left Washington, JM evidently gave him a letter for his brother Edward, inviting him to serve JM as his private secretary. Edward Coles at first decided to decline the offer, but James Monroe persuaded him to accept (Edward Coles to JM, 8 Jan. 1810, marked by Coles as not sent [NjP: Coles Papers]).

Index Entries